The Holiday Shopping Season is just around the corner! You may have been thinking about buying your first telescope, whether it’s for you or a sentimental gift for a loved one.
Sometimes, these telescopes will pop up into your social media feed, and they will try to pass off as legitimate. You may even see the price tag and think, “oh man, that’s a steal!”
These telescopes are the Tiger Electronic Handheld Games of the Astronomy world… they offer little functionality, and they usually end up collecting dust. Don’t fool yourself, and don’t be fooled!
Here’s the scenario:
You got a telescope over the holidays. You are told there is a star party where others will also bring their telescopes. So you decide to bring yours, hoping that someone will show you how to work it.
Even though a person is kind enough to help you figure out how to get it calibrated with the included finder, you find that it’s still really difficult to scan the sky and look for something bright enough to spot. When you do see a notable object, another problem arises – you can’t keep the telescope steady, as you let go, the tube falls away and loses the object. You try again, this time you’re able to lock the scope on the object, but then another thing happens: you can’t make any fine adjustments with all the knobs and levers locked – and again the object drifts out of view!
You end up leaving your telescope alone for the rest of the night, preferring to just look through someone else’s!
Sadly, I’ve seen this happen to people, especially children, at events that I organize. I feel bad for the people involved, but I never want to outright tell them they wasted their money.
Yes, it’s true that many children have to start somewhere, but there’s no excuse in the age where all the information can be researched!
Here is how you can identify trash telescopes!
The Price Tag Is Too Good To Be True
One day, a patron looked at the Moon through an 11″ SCT and asked me, “so how does this compare to a ‘normal’ telescope?” Baffled, I said, “Sir, this is a normal telescope!” He then continued, “no, I mean those scopes you can buy for like a hundred dollars.” “You mean those cheap telescopes you can buy at department stores?” He smiled and said, “yes, those telescopes!” I then said, “I hate to tell you, but we call those ‘trash telescopes.'” While everyone around me laughed at what I said, he definitely was not happy to hear this revelation.
I have always said, “If your budget is $100 or less, then get a pair of binoculars instead.” I don’t recommend even thinking about a decent beginner scope until its above the $200 price range. Even then, don’t assume you’ve found a winner just yet!
You See The Same Listings From “Clone” Sellers…
You should definitely keep a close watch on the sellers, especially if it’s on social media. I’ve seen this happen too many times where you see these glorified toys being advertised as these amazing telescopes, and it’s literally word for word the same product listing with the same pictures and attraction videos/pictures, but being sold by some seller with weird name… STAY AWAY!!!
The Details Listed by the Seller Are Vague
Look at the product details on this one! Not once does it mention the aperture or the focal length, the two most important specs that make a telescope work! There is no way that is an equatorial mount, nor a scope with a “main mirror.”
If the details are clearly not correct, and if the seller seems really shady like a lot of off market social media sellers are, then it’s definitely a piece of junk! Good luck seeing anything out of it!
It Boasts About Magnification
This is another big thing to look for on the product details. Any telescope that boasts about how much magnification you’ll be using with the kit is fooling you into buying it!
Take this next listing for example:
This is a perfect example of such a product listing boasting about the magnification power, but the actual specs are in fine print and you have to search hard for them.
The max magnification rule of thumb is two times the aperture in millimetres, or fifty times the aperture in inches… hence you need a telescope that is 337.5 mm or 13.5 inches wide to be even capable of theoretically resolving at 675x! My 203mm (8 inch) wide Newtonian has a max of 406x, and I rarely observe at that amount of zoom unless the conditions in the sky above are super steady.
Oh sure… you CAN set the listed 60mm scope to 675x magnification, but if you magnify higher than it can actually resolve (120x in this case), then you’re just seeing blurred mush.
To even get to the advertised 675x on the particular scope listed prior, you’d use the included 4mm eyepiece and the 3x Barlow. The problem here is that the eyepiece is more narrower than your exit pupil, and the Barlow will make your FOV even more narrow! so it will feel like trying to look for something in a black field through a typical plastic straw! Plus, the more magnification being used, the more prone to your image getting shaken, or bumped out of view due to the vibrations in your hands trying to move it steady….
Anything viewed at 675x magnification without the scope automatically compensating for Earth’s rotation will fly out of your FOV within 15 seconds… so if you even attempt it, then good luck…
As mentioned in my article warning you about “Super NanoTechnology Zoom Telescopes”, it is NOT ABOUT THE ZOOM! Most of the time, telescopes are used at low magnification, because the higher magnification you use, the less light you let in, and thus things in the deep sky like tight star clusters look much dimmer and harder to observe!
If it’s Being Sold in a Department Store!
Sure, even Celestron and Meade are guilty of putting out these junkers to make a quick buck for the holidays. While they may show the objects that are easy to point at, the optical quality is always going to be a gamble.
Please, don’t buy these from big chain department stores! More than likely, the workers at these stores have NO telescope knowledge, will not know what the specs on the box mean, and thus won’t be able to answer your questions.
If you’d rather go to a physical store that sells telescopes like a camera store, a lot of them sell telescopes during particular seasons only (like the holidays), and it will take research on your part to find such a physical place that sells telescopes year round, AND has people that know what they’re talking about.
It will always be better to search online and do your research on a telescope from a reputable website, and by all means, get the personalized information from experienced users – we WANT to help you! if you want my advice, I’m reachable through email or three social media links!
If you want your telescope to be a good investment, then a telescope only capable of showing a few objects is not going to be it!
Cheap Optics and Flimsy Mounts!
All you have to do is see the details by looking at the preview images. You should be able to tell that the tube and even the optics are made of cheap plastic. Many times, the included mounts are so lightweight and flimsy, that you won’t be able to stabilize anything!
Usually, these included mounts are actually cheap discarded camera tripods, especially those that have levers and knobs that you tighten/loosen to move the optical tube, but you can’t make any fine adjustments once you lock it. These are great for cameras shooting still landscapes, but NOT for telescopes that constantly need to be compensating for Earth’s rotation!
If you see a listed telescope, and the mount is one of those camera tripods, STAY AWAY!
A good telescope, even a small one, is capable of you moving the tube steady without you having to hold down the mount. Good mounts have separate fine adjustment controls to keep on the object in view so you don’t have to constantly move the tube with your hands.
Bad telescopes also come with eyepieces where the “lenses” are actually plastic, and sometimes even a solar filter that can break and cause eye damage! The widest eyepieces included are still too narrow to help you search and make adjustments if an object moves out of view.
Essentially, you’re not purchasing a working telescope, you’re buying a glorified toy!
You Didn’t Do Any Research or Asked Someone Who Knows This Stuff!
Trust me, telescope users like us WANT to help people get good telescopes at a good price. Visit an observatory, or attend a star party hosted by an astronomy club. People like us WANT to give you free information and save you the hassle!
People who visit the observatory ask me all the time “so what kind of scopes do you recommend?” And because I know they’ll forget the information, I give them my card and tell them to contact me so I can follow up! Most never do. Maybe they found a good scope, maybe they ended up getting a bad one, or simply lost interest and gave up.
Either way, someone like me can’t help you if you don’t ask or follow up, and if you go ahead and get a cheap POS only for you to be told later “it’s a trash telescope,” then that’s your fault!
Great first telescopes don’t need to be super fancy, include a motor drive for tracking, nor do they need any computer software. You can get good all around telescopes in the $200 price range, and they can be good investments in return. They can have equatorial mounts which enable you to track with Earth’s rotation, or they can be Dobsonian reflectors that are easy and ready to use straight out of the box.
Do many people end up getting the so called “trash scopes” before graduating to a better one? Sure. But most people who purchase these pieces of junk that collect dust after one or two uses end up giving it away for free, spider webs included!
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